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How to find passenger lists for ships

Simon Wills explains where to find online passenger list collections for ancestors who travelled overseas

Passengers play games on board ship, 1936 passenger lists

What are passenger lists?

Passenger lists were kept by shipowners from the 19th century onwards. They started as a practical method for keeping track of payments and services for the voyage, but also enabled individuals to be identified in case of a death at sea – which was not uncommon. It was considered good practice to keep one copy on the ship and another at the shipowner’s offices, in case the vessel sank.

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Where can you find passenger lists?

Unfortunately, there was initially no legal requirement to preserve passenger lists after the voyage was completed, so almost all of the early lists have been lost. Towards the end of the 19th century, the law changed and passenger lists had to be retained and submitted to the Board of Trade to form an archive. They were used to compile statistics on the movement of people in and out of Britain. You may be able to use them to trace ancestors who travelled overseas or emigrated.

Most original records held in the UK are at The National Archives (TNA) in Kew, in two Board of Trade series. Passengers who departed from UK ports between 1890 and 1960 are in series BT27, and these can be found on Ancestry and Findmypast, and are in the process of being added to TheGenealogist. Passengers arriving at a UK port from 1878 to 1960 are in BT26 and these documents are found on Ancestry. The records usually include a passenger’s name, age, occupation, address, nationality and destination, and the name of the ship.

What passenger lists survive?

The survival rate for records in both of these series of passenger lists is good, and it’s unusual not to be able to locate someone who is known to have travelled during the periods covered. That said, BT26 and BT27 both exclude certain types of passenger. They don’t document passengers travelling within UK waters on coastal vessels such as ferries, and no records of these voyages were kept. Furthermore civilian passenger lists do not include people transported by sea as troops or convicts, and they do not identify crewmembers either, except the captain.

A 1912 passenger list from Glasgow to Quebec from Ancestry
A 1912 passenger list from Glasgow to Quebec from Ancestry

The ability to find passengers who travelled solely within Europe is also variable. If the ship sailed only to one European country and back, then there will be no passenger lists. However, if the ship sailed to a European country and then onwards to another destination in Europe, or elsewhere in the world, then records usually survive.

Another limitation is that 19th-century passenger lists, in particular, may be incomplete, for example recording a surname and initial without further detail, say “Mr A Jones”. This obviously makes it more difficult for a researcher to be confident that a given passenger is indeed a member of their family.

An alternative source for information about non-British citizens (‘aliens’) travelling by sea to the UK are documents in TNA’s series HO2, HO3, HO5 and others that describe alien entries and arrivals. They collectively cover from 1794 to 1921 and reveal name, profession, nationality, date and place of arrival, and sometimes more details such as the name of the ship. These are on Ancestry.

Where can you find passenger lists for other countries?

Other countries also have passenger lists for people arriving on their shores. Canada, for example, has passenger lists dating back to 1865, many of which include British citizens. The digitised records are freely available on the Library and Archives Canada website.

Another method of finding passenger lists is to look at immigration records for countries that your ancestor may have emigrated to. The Ellis Island database, for example, has records of about 65 million passengers entering the USA between 1820 and 1957. Finally, lists of first- and second-class passengers arriving by sea were often published in old newspapers printed in British Empire ports outside the UK.

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Simon Wills is an expert in nautical genealogy who has worked on many episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? He is the author of Tracing Your Seafaring Ancestors and Tracing Your Merchant Navy Ancestors.